We Can Get Out of These Ruts

By Bill Bradley
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Every time I talk to people who have no health care, or to families without the means to find a good education for their children, or to pensioners who have lost their pensions, I am reminded that we have lost our capacity to imagine something better for our country. But we don't have to keep doing things that aren't working.

In the same spirit, we don't have to accept our continued dependence on oil as an immutable fact of life. Nor do we have to live with our counterproductive tax code. There are good alternatives, if we can overcome the paucity of imagination that has afflicted us for too long. But we can break out of the ruts we are in only by improving our politics.

Given that real power rests with the people and not the elected, the most discouraging thing about our current politics is that fewer than half of those eligible to vote did so in 1996 and 2000, and only 61 percent voted in the heavily contested presidential election of 2004. Off-year congressional election turnout ranges from 35 to 40 percent.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance compared voter turnout in national elections from 1945 to 1998 in 140 countries. Italy ranked first, with 92 percent, and the United States was 139th, with an average turnout of 48 percent. Why is voter turnout so low here?

There is a practical reason. Tuesday is an inconvenient day for voting. Imagine men and women who have to be at work by 8 in the morning and who get docked or possibly fired if they're late. They awake an hour early to get to the polls, which generally open at 7 a.m. The long line moves slowly; some have to leave for work before they reach the voting booth. By the time they return at the end of the day -- if they make it through traffic and arrange for someone to pick up their kids from after-school activities -- they may find even longer lines of people like them trying to vote after work.

Why do we make a citizen's most sacred democratic duty so inconvenient? Why Tuesday? I'll bet you can't tell me. Be honest.

Tuesday was established as Election Day in 1845 so that all Americans could vote on the same day. So why Tuesday? Saturday was a workday. Sunday was the Sabbath. It could take a whole day to travel to the polls in that horse-and-buggy age, so Monday was out. That left Tuesday and Wednesday. Wednesday in many places was market day, so by default -- Tuesday.

It's still Tuesday, but the horse and buggy are gone and the two-earner family has arrived, juggling stressful professional and family responsibilities. While 94 percent of those surveyed in a joint poll in the fall of 2005 by the Tarrance Group and Lake, Snell, Perry, Mermin/Decision Research said that "voting is an important civic duty that everyone should do," more than a third of those who usually don't vote said that the reason is because they are "too busy/didn't have time/working."

The antidote is to make voting easier. Election Day should be moved to Saturday and Sunday. If we give people two weekend days, turnout should increase. Weekend voting would not disrupt the school day. People could take their children to the polls, thereby inculcating the importance of voting. The same poll found that those who said they would be more likely to vote on a weekend are in the largest nonvoter groups -- African Americans, 18- to 34-year-olds, Hispanics, singles and working women.

The answer to the problems of democracy is more democracy. As Stanford political scientist Morris P. Fiorina says, "If the presidential electorate were to double and the off-year electorate to nearly triple, it is likely that parties and candidates would make different appeals to capture the support of new voters who would now be showing up at the polls." Increasing the size of the electorate to 80 percent of eligible voters would have as big an impact on our democracy as enfranchising women and blacks did. If democracy is about all of us, then as many of us as possible must vote. Otherwise democracy functions only for some of us, and many of our basic problems don't get addressed -- our dependence on oil, for example.

President Bush correctly observed in 2006 that "America is addicted to oil." The United States is the world's most profligate consumer of oil, using 25 percent of the global supply. China, which has four times as many people, consumes 7 percent.

The largest tax that Americans have paid over the past five years has been assessed not by our government but by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. In 2001, OPEC's average price of crude oil was $23.12 per barrel. In 2005, it was $50.71, the equivalent of a tax increase of more than $55 billion. If you bought just 16 gallons of gas per week (a tankful) in 2005, you were paying $500 more per year for gasoline than you were in 2001. When you factor in the hundreds of billions paid for two wars in the Persian Gulf region in 15 years, a part of whose purpose related to oil, this addiction has cost taxpayers far more than costlier gasoline and heating oil. Yet our government has done almost nothing to deal with our dependence on oil, especially our dependence on insecure sources of foreign oil.

You would think that the Bush administration fails to see the connection between our oil addiction and the loss of American lives in Iraq. The administration apparently finds a war to sustain our oil dependence preferable to the exercise of leadership to reduce that dependence. It can muster the political will to go to war, but it can't muster the courage to tell the American people the truth about what is required of each of us to break our oil addiction. So it is enabling that addiction.

Transportation accounts for 67 percent of the oil we consume, and surface vehicles alone account for 56 percent. This fact means that a dramatic reduction in consumption is relatively simple to achieve. Cars and trucks in the United States have an average fuel efficiency of 25.2 miles per gallon. In Europe it is 43. A mandatory increase that would bring the U.S. average to 40 miles per gallon or more would reduce our oil consumption by one-fourth. In other words, a single piece of legislation would eliminate the need to import oil from OPEC. Let me repeat: No need to import oil from OPEC.

To encourage people to buy fuel-efficient cars, we should establish a fee-rebate system. The buyers of the least fuel-efficient cars should pay fees that would in turn be paid as rebates to those who buy the most fuel-efficient cars within that class -- a major incentive. Former CIA director R. James Woolsey Jr., an advocate of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, noted in testimony before the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee that a hybrid vehicle such as a Toyota Prius can get 50 miles per gallon, and if it were made of lightweight carbon composites used in the manufacture of aircraft, it could get 100 miles per gallon. He went on to say that if it were a plug-in, flexible-fuel vehicle, it could get an incredible 1,000 miles per gallon. It's an industry ready to be born.

We also need to change our tax system to reduce our oil dependence. In general, we ought to reduce taxes on things we need, such as wages, and raise taxes on whatever is dangerous to us, such as pollution and resource depletion. We could implement a $1 per gallon gasoline tax; or an equivalent carbon tax, which is a tax on any energy source that emits carbon dioxide; or equivalent taxes on other major air pollutants: volatile organics, nitrogen oxide, lead, sulfurous dioxide and particulates. These taxes could be phased in over five years, with the revenue going to reduce employment taxes (Social Security, Medicare or unemployment insurance) for employees and employers alike. The gasoline or carbon tax would encourage the nation to reduce its dependence on insecure sources of foreign oil, and with payroll taxes reduced to 15 percent of labor costs, businesses would have an incentive to hire workers.

Such a shift in taxation -- away from jobs and toward pollution, energy and natural resources -- would draw many of the 24 million part-time employees into the full-time workforce, and millions more who are not working would be more likely to find jobs. After a few years of adjustment in the case of a gasoline or carbon tax, cars would be more fuel-efficient, so consumers would pay what they used to pay for the same amount of driving, and the broad middle class would continue to pay lower employment taxes. The result would be increasing demand for goods and services; shrinking dependency payments such as unemployment compensation and welfare; lowered social costs, such as crime and avoidable illness; and a more equitable tax system that encourages rising employment.

Reducing employment taxes also makes sense on grounds of competitiveness and equity. Employment taxes now hit our most successful companies hardest. A company such as Microsoft or McKinsey desperately needs talented people, and there is a limited pool of those with the requisite skills. As a part of a company's compensation package, it has to pay enough to offset the employment taxes paid by the employee. If it doesn't make up the taxes in higher wages, the employee can go somewhere else where the employer will cover the taxes. Meanwhile, at a lumberyard where there is an excess of labor, the company doesn't have to pay higher wages and the bulk of the employment taxes hit the workers. Perversely, it is the lowest-paid workers and the companies most essential to economic growth that are hit hardest by employment taxes.

We will never make these simple changes in our political system or in our energy and tax systems if we don't tell the truth about our national circumstances. Political leaders should not arrogate to themselves, based on a desire to hold onto political power, the right to hide the truth from the people. If we tell people the truth we can trust them to do the right thing. Sounds like a radical notion, but it's really just common sense.

Once we face the truth about our abysmal voter turnout, our oil addiction, our health-care and education crises, and our inadequate national savings, there is good news. There are answers to all our current problems. It's not rocket science. What's required is the political will to enact policies that can allow us to thrive in the 21st century. An administration bold enough to tell the truth will find an audience ready for bold solutions.

Bill Bradley is a Democratic former senator from New Jersey.

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